McLennan at Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park
McLennan at Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park (Karen Moskowitz)

Have You Hugged Your Building Today?

Jason McLennan’s supergreen designs could rewrite the rules of sustainability, but critics wonder if they’re practical enough to make a difference.

McLennan at Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park

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JASON MCLENNAN wants me to gaze into the crapper.

The new science wing at the Bertschi School in Seattle

The new science wing at the Bertschi School in Seattle The new science wing at the Bertschi School in Seattle

We’re inside a bathroom in one of the most aggressively green buildings in the world: the new science wing of the private Bertschi School in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The toilet is a humble composting unit that uses less than one cup of water per flush—a concept that tends to terrify people. Gallons of kiddie waste percolating away ­inside a school?

Absolutely, says McLennan, a bearded 38-year-old architect who comes off more like an evangelist than a designer. A cutting-edge deep-green thinker, McLennan wants to transform the way we build schools, homes, and office buildings, and though he’s devoted entire books to the subject, his philosophy is easily summarized: Time is short. The damage we’ve done to the ­planet is great. It’s no longer enough to design build­ings that do less harm. We need buildings that do no harm, that even give back, by meeting ­standards that surpass today’s greenest construction efforts.

Which brings us to the throne, a pretty unremarkable white porcelain number. Mc­Lennan tells me to take a sniff, so I bring my face down and breathe deeply. It smells vaguely like Mr. Clean; not a whiff of eau de camp­ground assaults my nostrils.

This pristine composting toilet is a champ—and a self-contained loop. The ­water is col­lec­ted rainfall. Solar panels on the roof provide electricity to fans in the toilet’s bins, where heated air thoroughly dries the waste, deodorizing it by exhausting the eva­porating liquids outside. What’s left is a stench-free dirtlike compost used to fertilize nonedible native plants in the school’s garden.

Compare that, McLennan says, with dig­ging trenches for a sewer line, pump­ing the poop to a waste-treatment plant miles away, using chemicals to scrub the water, and dump­ing what’s left into Puget Sound. When McLennan gets serious, as he does now, his eyes turn hard. “Which is better?” he asks.

It all seems … so right. But we’re in the heart of tree-hugging Seattle and not Detroit, nor booming China, nor the favelas of Rio, nor any of ten thousand other places where people would resist such ideas as being too expensive or off-the-wall. Standing here, I wonder: Am I really looking at the future? Or is McLennan so far ahead of the rest of the world that he might as well be shouting down a well?

AMERICA LOVES TO BUILD stuff. This year, even with the country still wobbling through a recession, 1.7 billion square feet of new com­mercial construction—office buildings, Walmarts—will rise across the U.S. Builders will nail together 1.4 million new households.

This is a problem.

The building sector is the largest contributor to the nation’s CO2 emissions—larger even than transportation or industry—and it was responsible for a staggering 2.6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses in 2009 alone, according to the group Architecture 2030, which is trying to promote solutions to the problem. Buildings gobble up 77 percent of all the electricity we create, electricity that often comes from coal-fired power plants. “We are completely fucked,” McLennan says, delivering a falsetto laugh.

We’re together at lunch on a bright, optimistic-feeling April day in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, and McLennan—dressed in trademark black—is expounding on another tenet of his philosophy: You can’t move forward if you don’t first acknowledge how heinously dark things have gotten. “This is the first year of the last decade we have to make a difference,” he likes to say. “We need to get off our asses and do something.”

For McLennan and a passionate group of converts, that means radically changing how we build. Right now, most architects in North America who want to go green follow the guidance of Leadership in ­Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)—a tiered certification system (silver, gold) that’s supposed to ensure that new buildings are eco-friendly. About 9,415 new or renovated LEED buildings have been certified since the program began in 2000. But critics argue that even LEED structures aren’t sustainable. Buildings rated platinum—the highest level—can still suck plenty of energy from the grid, and they’re allowed to use wood harvested from clear-cuts. While the LEED standard deserves credit for raising awareness, says Peter Rumsey, a Stanford lecturer and green-building ­engineer, “LEED is not getting us there.”

McLennan has been beating this drum since 2006, when he took the podium at Green­­build, the enviro-building industry’s annual confab. Just before the keynote ­address by environmental activist David Suzuki, a nervous McLennan took the dais to unveil a new building standard he’d been working on for months, which he called the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

The proposal he outlined was both elegant and incredibly stringent. Among its requirements: an LBC building has to collect its own water and use only what it collects. It has to generate its own power and be constructed using materials that originate within a certain mileage radius, to discourage gas consumption and encourage a strong regional economy. Buildings must incorporate urban agriculture by leaving space for crops.

Perhaps most unusual, aesthetics are man­datory, in the form of “design features intended solely for human delight”—­features like the Bertschi School’s river of collected rainwater, which architects Chris Hellstern and Stacy Smedley designed to flow beneath a see-through portion of floor. And, unlike with LEED, LBC buildings have to prove their worthiness for a year before being certified.

When McLennan finished describing the rules, a few thousand conventioneers stood and applauded. “The ovation was not for me,” he says, recalling the scene. “It was for an idea whose time had come.”

Arguably, McLennan’s entire upbringing had led him to this moment. He was raised in the industrial city of Sudbury, Ontario, in the 1970s, when Sudbury was widely known as the ugliest place in Canada. Home to the world’s richest vein of nickel ore and the smelters that processed it, the city was so blackened by soot—and its hills so ravaged by a century of heavy industry—that NASA astronauts sometimes trained on its moonlike landscape.

McLennan grew up tramping the woods and waters on the greener fringes of town. During his childhood, something remarkable happened: locals got fed up with Sudbury’s ugliness. They hauled bags of lime up the polluted hilltops. They planted trees. McLen­nan helped during school-sponsored field trips. He saw the ecosystem rebound.

“That was a very formative message for me,” he says today. “About, on the one hand, our ability to completely destroy a place. On the other, I saw that when there’s real community concern, we can change things.” He later decided to become an architect, graduating from the University of Oregon in 1997.

Hired right out of college by the vanguard Kansas City–based green-architecture firm BNIM—cofounded by Bob Berkebile, who’s been called the Professor Dumbledore of the movement—McLennan worked on green projects like a landmark federal laboratory for chemistry and biology in Bozeman, Montana, which was intended to be the greenest building ever constructed. (It was never built, but McLennan calls his work on the lab his “virtual Ph.D.”) By age 30, he was the firm’s young­est partner, and he soon began a shift from architect to visionary. One ­major influence was Janine Benyus’s 1997 book, Biomimicry, which argues that nature often provides the most elegant and waste-free solutions to human prob­lems, like producing concrete with­out carbon emissions by imitating the way coral builds. McLennan and Berkebile were intrigued by the prospect of applying Benyus’s ideas to architecture: Could the modern building mimic, say, a flower? Flowers are rooted in place, just as buildings are. Yet flowers generate their own energy and process their own waste. They have to be efficient. And they’re beautiful to boot.

IT ALL SOUNDS GOOD on paper, but for the ­moment Living Buildings are more talked about than made. By last spring, only four had been certified worldwide, in Hawaii, Missouri, British Columbia, and New York. Seven more will be finished around North America by this fall, including several in the ­Pacific Northwest. In all, about 80 buildings in eight countries have registered for the Challenge.

Cost is one obvious inhibitor. According to a study by the Portland, Oregon, International Living Future Institute, a Living Building costs anywhere from 9 percent more (for a university classroom structure in temperate Portland) to nearly 49 percent more (for a low-rise office complex in colder ­Boston) than a comparable nongreen building. Since these buildings won’t have big power or ­water bills, they will earn their keep. The Boston build­ing, for example, should pay for its higher initial costs in 16 to 21 years.

Not surprisingly, life in a Living Building takes some getting used to. ­Translation: bring a sweater and Bermuda shorts. “Some days you’re going to be too cold, some days you’re going to be too hot,” says ­Rebecca ­Mc­­­Diarmid, project manager of the ­recently com­pleted VanDusen ­Botanical Garden visitor center—Vancouver, B.C.’s first Living Building.

At a Living Building office structure slated for construction in Portland next year, about 12 percent of energy savings will have to come from changes in “tenant behavior,” says Lisa Abuaf of the Portland Devel­opment Commission, which is overseeing the $60 million publicly funded project. For instance, developers are including fewer ­ele­vators, offsetting them with an inviting light-filled staircase. (Huff, huff.) And temperatures will fluctuate somewhat with the seasons. (Pant, pant.)

For these and other reasons, not everyone thinks LBC buildings are the next big thing. “I count myself one of the skeptics about Living Buildings,” says architect Peter Steinbrueck, a former Seattle city councilman and the son of Space Needle designer Victor Steinbrueck. “They’re far-fetched,” he says, pointing out that many city building sites don’t get enough sunlight to generate their own solar power. “It’s doubtful that these goals can be applied right now for all new construction.”

McLennan is used to this kind of skepticism. “Every idea that’s radical is at first deemed crazy,” he says. “John Stuart Mill said, ‘Every great move­ment must experience three stages: ridi­­cule, discussion, adoption.’” LEED is a good example, he says. Only 15 years ago, “it was deemed so impractical that it would never be a mainstream topic. That changed in the span of a few years.”

Despite the obstacles, the buzz about ­Living Buildings is already pretty loud among design leaders. More than 700 people converged on Vancouver in May to attend the fifth Living Future conference; for three days, architects, designers, and engineers stayed up late drinking microbrews and ­arguing about ­embodied carbon and net-zero water. McLennan says that the first few LBC buildings will have a big­ger ­impact than their numbers ­imply, since they’re opening people’s eyes to what’s possible. “These are beacons,” he says.

It helps that the beacons look good. We’re not talking about patchouli-scented earthships: these are buildings you’d want to live in, work in, visit. The new VanDusen Botanical Garden visitor center is an architectural stunner. The roof of the $20 million structure emulates the six undulating petals of an ­orchid. Sensuously curved concrete walls hold up floor-to-ceiling windows that frame views of the gardens.

Less obvious are the smart touches that make it work. Covering the petals is a living roof made of local plants and mosses that forestall runoff; other parts of the roof drain rainwater to a cistern for use in toilets and urinals. Solar panels provide hot water, and a geothermal heat exchanger helps warm the 20,000-square-foot interior. Toilets flush into a chemical-free septic system that uses natural bacteria for filtration. Many LEED buildings have green roofs or solar panels or catch rainwater, but almost none do all the things Living Buildings are required to do.

Such beauty and functionality isn’t easy to achieve. “At times it was screamingly frustrating, to the point where you just wanted to walk away,” says Skip Backus, CEO of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York. Two years ago, Omega completed the world’s first Living Building, a 6,250-square-foot facility that uses plants and natural processes to handle all the sewage and wastewater from the 120-building campus. Living Building rules required that, during construction, everything from lumber bits to the workers’ lunch scraps be composted or recycled.

But the most difficult part was simply procuring all the right stuff. The LBC forbids build­ing with a red-list of 14 suggested or known carcinogens, including formaldehyde, phthalates, and PVC. These materials are so ubiquitous that avoiding them has proven the toughest building requirement yet.

Amanda Sturgeon, certification director for the Living Building Challenge, says that workers on that project couldn’t even run to the local lumber yard if they needed a two-by-four, since that wood wasn’t certified.

This approach costs more money and time, but Backus insists it’s worth it. “We have no energy footprint with this building,” he says. “Zero. That’s an amazing statement. Not only are we saying that about a building, but we’re saying it about a waste-treatment ­facility”—one with huge pumps that process up to 52,000 gallons of wastewater a day.

The Challenge is having an influence even when the buildings it inspires are never built. Lawmakers in Oregon and Washington have already changed or are considering changing regulations to allow buildings to harvest rainwater and reuse lightly soiled water from bathing and hand-washing for irrigation and other uses. “We basically eliminated the barriers to the next step in serious water reduction,” says Ben Gates, a project manager and architect who led the effort in Oregon.
IT’S A BIT JARRING, then, when McLennan says that concrete and steel aren’t ultimately what’s important. “To think that we’re designing things is a failure of our industry,” McLennan tells the assembled devotees in Vancouver’s Sheraton ballroom in May, to another standing ovation. In his vision of the not-so-distant future, a neighborhood will be less a collection of bricks and mortar than an urban ecosystem that mimics natural processes—actually creating soil and providing habitat for birds and other animals.

But McLennan wants more: ­Living Buildings should repair the relation­ships we’ve lost with each other, he says. Consider the Brattleboro Food Co-op in Vermont. Bill Reed, a sustainability consultant and a friend of Mc­Lennan’s, was called in when the co-op wanted to build a new ­ultra­green grocery. “Great,” Reed ­answered. “But do you want LEED or do you want to be sustainable?” In the end, says Reed, principal of the Inte­­grative Design Collaborative in Massachusetts, “we programmed the grocery store to become an agricultural extension service.” The co-op bolstered its ties to area farmers so it could buy more ­local produce instead of purchasing blueberries from Chile. Reed also helped ­position its new building as a community-revitalization initiative: now under ­construction, the project will include afford­able housing upstairs,  restoration of a nearby brook, and ­revival of a dead part of Brattleboro.

On the last day of the Vancouver conference, McLennan takes a quick break outside the Sheraton. He’s visibly spent—throughout the conference, he’s been treated like a minor rock star, with people constantly walking up to shake his hand. He revives immediately, however, when talk turns to the movement he helped birth and the suggestion that it might be unworkable or outlandish. “What’s insane,” he says, motioning to the climate-controlled skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver surging around him, “is the way we’ve been building.” But, he ­believes, maybe not for long. “There’s a revolution under way,” he says, before getting up to head back inside among the faithful. “It’s just at the cusp of really breaking.”

From Outside Magazine, Oct 2011 Lead Photo: Karen Moskowitz